Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive

We’ve had two posts about character in historical fiction: The Character-Driven Story (a contribution from Mary F. Burns) and Character – the historical fiction variety. Today, I’m going to further explore character – one of the seven elements of historical fiction – using author Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George provides the topics she covers in her prompt sheet. A caveat here based on comments received: I’m not advocating this particular prompt sheet, nor am I advocating planning your characters in advance like Elizabeth does. I’m more seat-of-the-pants in terms of my characters. What I am trying to illustrate is the aspects authors can explore to add authenticity to HF characters.


It seems to me that many items on Elizabeth’s prompt sheet offer the opportunity for a writer to bring a historical perspective.

Name – what names were popular in the middle ages or the early twentieth century? Of course, location is also a factor.

Height/Weight/Build – these could reflect nutrition of the time as well as social norms. Curviness in a woman might be considered highly attractive in some time periods, so a thin woman might feel unattractive.

Educational background – what were the prevailing norms for education in the historical period of the time? Were girls educated? Were boys expected to leave school at a young age to help support the family? Was an educated woman considered unattractive? Dangerous? Who taught the children? Were boys sent away to school? Were working class children uneducated? Were religious institutions involved in education? Were activists calling for public education?

Sexuality – no doubt there are books written about this! Or PhD theses. Sexual norms could have a critical impact on a character’s behaviour, so it’s important to understand what they were and then choose how they affected your character.

Family – family size, family structure, sibling relationships, family values and expectations all have a historical element. These can feature in a character’s back story, motivations, damaging incidents and so on.

Core need – the single need at the core of who a character is. “We’re born with them and during our lifetimes, we mold most of our behaviour to meet our core need. This is something essential to a person, an automatic striving within him that, when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology.” — Write Away by Elizabeth George

Some core needs are universal and irrespective of time period. The need to be loved, for example, or the need for a father’s approval. The desire for competence. Others may be influenced by time period or historical events shaping a particular era.

Ambition in life – clearly this needs to reflect historical times rather than modern day times. And similarly take into account a character’s station in life. An 18th century woman would not yearn to be CEO of a major corporation. It’s unlikely that a 12th century peasant would yearn to command an army.

Gait – at first I thought that the way a character walks would not be influenced by history. But what about a geisha? Or the young Queen Victoria who was disciplined to walk in a composed, stately manner even as a child?

Laughs or jeers at – while some of these choices for characters can be universal, others would reflect the historical time period. Men during Oliver Cromwell’s time would laugh at different things or people than men of the early twentieth century.

Philosophy – we can think of this as the guiding principles a character lives by. It defines who we are and what we stand for. One’s philosophy often reflects upbringing, religion, societal values and these, in turn, reflect the times.

All of these and more help transport readers in time and place. In a subsequent post, I’ll look at the rest of the prompt sheet plus some additional items to consider.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website


Book blogging in Iran

Several months ago, when I asked for people willing to be interviewed about their book blogs or bookstagram activities, identical twins from Iran got in touch with me. As it turns out, they don’t currently have a blog, however, they do belong to an English book club and are planning to create a blog. With what is going on in our world right now (!!), it’s encouraging to hear what these women have to say.

The sign advertises English Book Club

Why did you start blogging about or featuring books?

To be honest, we didn’t have enough information about blogging. We express our warm thanks to Mary for informing us and giving us this opportunity to start our own blog and read various books. That’s why we have decided to start our own blog. Thanks to her, we have this chance to connect with other readers.

What type of books appeal to you and why?

Honestly, English is our favourite language and we read a huge selection of books and articles in English. In other words, the books help us feel better and develop our minds. Certainly, the ones that have much more depth. Gaining different experience from various books is really enjoyable. We like reading the book even holding it altogether. We are highly fascinated to read and share the joy of reading with our  friends.

Do you concentrate on a specific genre? If so, can you tell us a bit about your passion?

We’re into historical fiction. In addition to it, romance and non-fiction book genres are our favourite. Above all, we’re willing to read all genres but hardly read horror.

Who are your readers and followers? How do you engage with them? [These comments refer to the English book club.]

Followers and visitors are a group of lovely readers who are passionate about reading, discussing and being informed. It’s noteworthy that some of the people join us since they are interested in English books and learning English. Likewise, some decide to follow us out of curiosity. Honestly, the book club aroused a lot of curiosity among Iranian people. Actually, it’s the first in Iran. We’re greatly interested in following other post links. We do hope they follow us.

What ways do you use to attract new readers and followers?

Via indirect story post and reading ecosystem. Above all, we have a growing interest in introducing  books through acting. We ourselves enjoy reading and sharing such posts more. Just share our happiness and joy of reading. Hope others enjoy.

How do you interact with authors and publicists?

On Instagram, social networks, post office and email. Likewise, we feel honoured and proud when we interact  with such lovely people. Our words fail to express our feelings when they contact us. Our top priority in the book club is writing an open letter to the authors of the select book. Then, we send the members’ letters to the authors by email. Actually, it planted the seed of interest for the members of book club. It’s noteworthy that childrens’ letters for the book “The Fire Eaters” were sent to Professor David Almond and his kind response was an amazing event.

Yalda is a celebration of the winter solstice

What trends or changes have you noticed in the book world?

We’ve noticed  that young children in addition to old readers are big fans of books and interested in book club. Therefore, it motivates young readers to start reading. To the best of our knowledge, smart phones keep children from reading. So that sharing the books through videos would be useful and motivate them to keep reading.

If you could wave your magic wand, what would you change about the book industry?

Nowadays, books are so expensive. In addition, the access is not easy, especially, in Iran. Finding a way to solve this problem would be highly appreciated. Another thing would be sharing the books from bookcases since even holding a book puts everybody in the mood for reading.

Dear twins – I’m so delighted you took the time to connect with me and with the audience of A Writer of History. I know my readers will be very intrigued! When you do start your blog, please send me a link so I can publicize it.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

Readers on Reading … Richard from the UK

Today, I’m pleased to have a reader from the UK providing his thoughts about reading. Welcome, Richard.

Please tell us a little about yourself. My name is Richard Tearle, I am a retired Civil servant from the UK and I review Historical Fiction for a well known online blog.

In your opinion, what is the power of fiction? At its best, fiction can take you into a world you don’t know, with characters you’ve never met in situations you cannot imagine. Historical fiction gives you insight into that world, those characters and those situations that you may well know something of.

What kind of stories are you drawn to? Any you steer clear of? Mostly Historical Fiction, of course, but also Fantasy and some thrillers.

What aspects of an author’s writing make you feel like you’re ‘immersed in the novel’s world’ and/or ‘transported in time and place’. A style that fits the character or situation, but wouldn’t necessarily work in a completely different book. The abilty to ‘grab’ the reader in the first page and remain ‘grabbed’ until the last.

Which books read in the past year or so stand out for you and why? In all honesty, far too many to list here.

How do you decide what books to buy? What influences your book purchases? I rarely have to buy books nowadays, but any new Bernard Cornwell, Joe Abercrombie or John Connolly are a must. Basically, anything else that attracts my attention but it will generally be Historical Fiction.

Is there anything about where you live or your particular background that influences your fiction choices? I live in Lichfield, Staffordshire, near to Tamworth and Burton-upon-Trent, all of which are rich in Mercian history.

If you’re a book blogger or run a book site, please tell us a little about your focus and features. The site I ‘work’ for (it is voluntary and unpaid’) is called Discovering Diamonds and is run by author Helen Hollick. We deal mostly in Indie authors as they have few outlets of this sort and we believe that Indie authors are for the most part, the equal of established mainstream authors. Its also the best ‘job’ I have ever had!!

If there is anything else about reading fiction, the kind of books available today, or the way reading is changing that you’d like to comment on, please do so. Reading fiction is rather like watching a dramatisation instead of the equivalent documentary – much more fun but probably not as accurate. I think that e-books are the future, though they may mean the death of libraries, which will be sad. More and more authors are going Indie and self publishing which may have an effect on the way mainstream publishers dictate what they want readers to read.

Sounds like you’re a busy man with all your endeavours, Richard. Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed and for supporting Discovering Diamonds – a very important endeavour that is much appreciated by the historical fiction community.

You can reach Richard at his art site and on Facebook or at the Tearle Family site.